“Please get someone to open an Alabama BBQ joint in California. I would greatly appreciate that—the stuff out here is so disappointing.”
That’s Jason Horn, the now L.A.-based wordsmith behind the blog The Messy Epicure, spirits columnist for Playboy, and founder of Food Blog South, a conference based in Birmingham, Alabama that has since been taken over by the Southern Foodways Alliance and re-branded as Food Media South.
After earning a journalism degree at Chicago’s Northwestern University, Horn ended up in Alabama as a fledgling food writer, scoring a job at America’s most widely circulated food magazine, Cooking Light. This gave him all the more reason to dive deep into Alabama’s ‘cue scene.
“When you refer to BBQ in Alabama, what you’re really talking about is north Alabama. All the famous places and notable traditions are in the Birmingham area and northward.”
On a map, if you were to put your finger on the town of Decatur and draw a 75-mile circle around it, any place within that radius would be serving the state’s crowning achievement: white sauce, originated by Big Bob Gibson’s in the 1930s. A mixture of mayo, vinegar, sugar, and pepper, the signature sauce is served with smoked chicken.
“It’s a simple, tangy sauce, yet for some reason you can’t find it outside of Alabama. It’s crazy. Generally, people get thrown off by the mayo, but it’s very similar to a Carolina coastal sauce. The mayo just adds a bit of creaminess to it.”
Like Kentucky, Alabama shares a similar underdog status in the BBQ world. “It doesn’t have a real tourist destination. There are big cities in the Carolinas and Tennessee. In the public imagination, Kentucky at least has bourbon and horses. But Alabama? The thing is, people don’t realize what an amazing food scene Birmingham has, and that’s certainly anchored in BBQ.”
From massive baked potatoes stuffed with pork, to classic chicken sandwiches doused in white sauce, here are seven underrated BBQ eats in Alabama.
Chicken with White Sauce at Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q
Address and phone: 3278 Cahaba Heights Rd, Vestavia Hills (205-967-6004)
Horn says: “This is everything that you want in an archetypal BBQ joint. It’s a little shack that’s been there forever. The decor is all pig-related, including Alabama football memorabilia that adorns the walls. The chicken is the greatest—it’s got a heavy smoke flavor, and the white sauce is incredible. What I really like about it is that the smoke suffuses the whole chicken; it’s not just in the skin or thin outer layers. It’s in every bite. I consider it the gold standard. They also have really great deviled eggs. Every BBQ joint has the option of a combo plate. Most of the time the sides aren’t that great, but here that’s not the case. Plus they have house baked pies.” (Photo: Yelp/Stephanie P.)
Pulled Pork at Carlile’s Barbecue
Address and phone: 3511 6th Ave S, Birmingham (205-254-9266)
Horn says: “It’s a very simple place that’s been around here forever. They don’t really do whole hog in Alabama; usually it’s smoked pork butt. There’s a bit of variation with sauces, but typically it’s vinegar-based like the Carolinas. Sometimes it will have tomato like western North Carolina, and you’ll occasionally see mustard-based from South Carolina.” (Photo: Carlilesbbq.com)
Pork Ribs at Dreamland
Address and phone: 3855 University Dr NW, Huntsville (256-539-7427)
Horn says: “After Big Bob Gibson’s, this is considered the most famous place. It started in Tuscaloosa. The original Dreamland serves pork ribs and white bread. That’s it. They’re really not about the sides or anything else. The ribs are fairly traditional and come with a nice rub. The white bread is the cheap and crappy stuff (laughs). It’s a common trope in Southern BBQ. Good luck finding beef ribs in Alabama—it isn’t a huge part of the tradition.” (Photo: Facebook/Dreamland BBQ)
Turkey at Rusty’s Bar-B-Q
Address and phone: 7484 Parkway Dr, Leeds (205-699-4766)
Horn says: “It’s 20 minutes east of Birmingham—an unassuming roadside place that serves excellent BBQ. BBQ joints should never look shiny and new—instead, they should have an anthropomorphic pig hanging on the side of the building. Rusty’s does a good smoked turkey, sliced white and dark meat.” (Photo: Facebook/Rusty’s Bar-B-Q)
Baker from Saw’s
Address and phone: 1008 Oxmoor Rd, Birmingham (205-879-1937)
Horn says: “This is a modern addition to the Alabama ‘cue scene. The founder Mike Wilson was given the nickname S.A.W. in high school, which stands for ‘Sorry Ass Wilson.’ Later on in life, he went to culinary school and began working as the test kitchen chef at Cooking Light Magazine. On occasion he’d make Carolina-style pork and sell it to co-workers. He decided to open his own place, so he took a week off from work to get the restaurant open, but it did so well that he never came back. They have great chicken too, but the thing I really love is called the baker—a giant baked potato with BBQ meat and sauce. It’s ridiculously indulgent, and also the ultimate hangover meal.” (Photo: Yelp/Sarah M.)
Chow-Chow at Full Moon
Address and phone: 4635 US Highway 280, Birmingham (205-991-7328)
Horn says: “They do great pulled pork, and their chow-chow is quite good. Chow-chow is essentially chopped up pickles with a mustard-y sauce. Most places put it on their sandwiches, and it’s best used with pulled pork. It’s the same idea as tangy, vinegar-y BBQ sauce. There’s something about the acid that pairs well with smoke and fat. It’s not exactly unique to Alabama, but it’s certainly prevalent. Make sure to pick up a jar on your way out.” (Photo: Facebook/Full Moon BBQ)
Cheese Biscuits at Jim ‘N Nick’s
Address and phone: 1908 11th Ave S, Birmingham (205-320-1060)
Horn says: “Jim ‘N Nick’s has turned into a restaurant empire. It started off in Birmingham, but now they now have several dozen locations, including in Georgia and the Carolinas. They’re partially responsible for bringing Alabama BBQ to a wider audience. One of the things they’re known for is their cheese biscuits. When you go there they give you a tray of them. They’re greasy and wonderful.” (Photo: Facebook/Jim ‘N Nick’s)